Alex Acuña, Commonwise Education & The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, NY

Hello Y’all! My name is Alex, and for a nice chunk of this summer I will be working with Commonwise Education and the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI) as a “Development without Displacement Intern.” This internship is meant to serve the Development without Displacement Roundtable, which is a collection of community based organizations here in the Bronx that are trying to grapple with and strategize around the wave of gentrification and displacement that has started to hit the Bronx.

The Bronx, like many urban areas in the country, has been marred by segregation, and disinvestment. Once a largely white suburb in Westchester, the Bronx was seriously impacted by government redlining, whereby the banks and the government intentionally excluded certain areas from access to mortgages, often due to “infiltration” of “negroes” and undesired immigrant populations. Redlining in turn helped stoke racial fears, leading to real estate blockbusting, whereby real estate agents would convince white residents that black residents were going to move to their neighborhood. This, they told white residents, would drastically decrease the value of their homes. They would then convince white families to sell their homes at below market value, and then turn around and sell those homes at inflated prices to Black families looking to move into nicer neighborhoods. This then contributed to white flight and continued urban disinvestment, which then literally paved the way for Urban Renewal. Robert Moses famously displaced thousands of families in the Bronx to make way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway. In the 1970s the city had an official policy of “planned shrinkage,” deeming the Bronx too decayed to continue investing in public services. Today, because of this history, the Bronx is the New York City borough with the lowest income. The median income in the Bronx is about thirty-five thousand dollars, or about 30% of Area Median Income (AMI). Since many current affordable housing developments target people at 60-80% AMI, even the construction of “affordable housing” is not really meant to help the average Bronxite.

And yet, the Bronx is full of hopeful contradictions. Fordham Road is the third largest commercial corridor in New York City. Hundreds of local businesses thrive here. Large anchor institutions such as Fordham University, Hunts Point Food Distribution Center (the largest in the world), and several hospitals employ thousands and rely on the services of thousands more. However, most of the $9 billion spent annually by these institutions on goods and services is spent outside the Bronx. This begs the question: how can the wealth that already exists in the Bronx be leveraged to build the wealth and stability of the residents of the Bronx? As more factories close to make way for luxury lofts and auto shops become hipster coffee shops, how can those who have worked and lived in the Bronx for generations be uplifted, not uprooted? Central to this is facilitating the ownership of more of the means of production, especially land.

Spending a few weeks in the Bronx, I can only make a dent in this larger issue, but I will be working with BCDI to help develop an alternative development scenario as the organization supports its partners who are developing a Community Land Trust (CLT). A CLT is a strategy for the long-term affordability. Under a CLT, the value of land is divorced from the value of the property that sits upon it. The land is owned and managed cooperatively by a non-profit entity, and the above-ground property is owned by an individual, family, or non-profit. Most CLTs allow for families to build some equity, but the idea is to make the initial purchase of the homes affordable, and to pass on those savings to the next owner. Part of my role this summer will be to develop a strategy for building this CLT in the Northwest Bronx. I’ll be researching a number of mixed use sites in the Northwest Bronx, looking at a variety of factors such as value, area, proximity to other sites, and current ownership to help determine which sites are best to target for inclusion in a CLT. The idea is to find places we can carve out for community ownership of land, and to shield it from real estate speculation. Since Bronxites are renters, this strategy will focus on areas where the CLT can build multi-family mixed use housing. Such a strategy will accomplish the goal of creating more deeply affordable housing for renters while also preserving existing businesses that are facing displacement pressures as well. In this way, a CLT has the potential to guard against both the residential and commercial displacement of the people of the Bronx.

Another strategy for broader land acquisition is looking at existing policy levers for tenant and community takeovers of land in New York, as well as other models that could be advocated for and implemented in the Bronx. I will be doing some research on this to help some of our partner organizations.

This is a lot to do in a short amount of time but I am excited to be working with an organization that is driven by a clear mission and political analysis (and with some great MIT alums too!) This year at DUSP has been a whirlwind, trying to understand what planning is and how it can be used as a tool to make people’s lives better. I’m hoping that this internship gives me the chance to use some of the technical skills I’ve developed this year while also learning more about the ways in which planning and policy can be leveraged to uplift communities facing displacement. I’m hoping to also utilize the skills that I used as a community organizer before coming to MIT. Wish me luck!

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